Caribou, Moose and Bears, Oh My!
and the Highest Mountain in North America!
That bear at the top is a bit of a teaser. We’ll see him, and his bear companion, and just how close they got to us, later in the post.
Let’s start at the beginning, driving up to Denali National Park, home to Denali, heretofore known as Mount McKinley, at 6190.5 m (20,310 ft) the highest peak in North America and and third-most topographically isolated summit on Earth after Mount Everest and Aconcagua.
Our first views of Denali were from hundreds of miles away, as it rose over the horizon viewed from the south by a lake.
We were very lucky with the weather. Denali is often obscured by clouds. Only 30% of the time – or 1 out if 3 days – is the mountain visible.
The two days of our travel up to Denali and our tour in the Denali National Park were both one out of the three days.
Denali is an Athabascan word meaning “the high one”.
The Alaska Range, as seen from Talkeetna.
In case you need some orientation…
The hotel in Talkeetna where we caught the above view of Denali boasts this big grizzly.
It’s behind the glass. Ed is in front.
Actual live bears coming up later.
A closer vantage point to Denali allowed for some intimately encroaching zoom shots.
Late May many of the mountains on the way to Denali look like Rorschach tests.
This “Igloo” is the shell of a hotel venture that went bust before construction was completed.
And now we’re at the park:
We took a tour bus that started at the Denali Bus Depot and went as far as the Toklat River Rest Stop (the road further in was still being cleared of winter snow) and back again.
The first wild animal encounter we had was a porcupine nuzzling about just a few feet from the road.
A young moose.
A moose with her two calfs ambled on the road in front of the bus for a while. Our tour guide/driver put them on screens for us in the back of the bus to see.
Eventually they veered off into the bush, where they quickly blended with nature.
Our guide informed us that less than 20% of Moose young survive into adulthood…
First glimpse of the mountain Denali in the park Denali.
There is never much more water than this in these rivers – but the ever mutating paths the water cuts creates the wide silt and gravel field the river commands.
Ptarmigan – the Alaska State Bird
Patience, an actual living breathing bear or two will show up eventually too.
(Not that that can be guaranteed, but I remember what happened, and we were lucky this day.)
A Dall Sheep sauntered onto the road from the valley and walked ahead of the bus for about half a mile before climbing up the mountain. Our guide told us how unusual it was not only that our tour would see so much wildlife this morning, but that so much of it would join us for a spell on the road, seemingly oblivious to the bus.
The animals appear to have learned that the buses pose no danger to them…
Ahead of us is the Polychrome Overlook, where the road takes some sharp turns among steep cliff sides.
A warming climate has also made the Polychrome mountain more unstable, which is making that part of the road difficult for the park to maintain.
Two Dall Sheep stalked by a Lynx.
When I zoomed in to take these pictures only the Sheep had been spotted from afar. Later someone noticed the Lynx, but by then we were watching from a different angle and the Lynx had blended more into the vegetation around it; as much as I tried, I couldn’t spot it.
Only later when I looked at these photos on my computer did I realize I had already photographed the Lynx before anyone had spotted it.
One guide said that the previous day he had seen a lamb with these sheep, which was no longer visible. His tone strongly implicated the Lynx…
Our closest approach to Denali Mountain. Because the road to Eielson Visitor Center was still closed, we didn’t return to the spot where, 26 years earlier, I stood in front of a large viewing window looking into the fog. Only tape markings on the window indicated where Denali would be if I could see it. A brilliantly sunny day (today and yesterday) made up for that lost opportunity with spectacular, pristine views of Denali (remember, it is generally covered up by clouds 2/3rds of the time).
I would have liked to gotten all the way back to that Eielson Visitor Center viewing window and see the real thing outlined by those tape markings on the glass.
Golden Eagle. I got closer looks, but not closer pictures.
The Toklat River Rest stop was the furthest our tour bus could take us up the park road. Two days later (May 27) the road to the Eielson Visitor Center would open.
This is early Spring in Denali Park. It will get greener during the summer. And in September it will burst into color.
After that it’s another eight month winter.
Moose antlers are shed and regrown every year.
As are Caribou antlers.
In May a caribou’s antlers are still in the early growing stages.
Just when I was thinking, while on our way back to the bus depot: well, we saw moose, and caribou, and Dall sheep, but it looks like we won’t see bears…
Suddenly there were two just off the side of our bus up the mountain…
No zoom used on this shot. This is how close the bears got to the bus (which they ignored – but we were all well behaved tourists who minded our driver and kept quiet and kept our body parts inside the bus.)
This bear started digging for roots.
Finally, just before we drove on, I remembered I could also film the bears in action…
And here are some more caribou hanging out…
The only picture I have of Ed riding a bear …
On the drive back south, we got another look of Denali, this time with some afternoon cloud coverage beginning to veil the more-often-than-not obscured mountain.